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Christmas cantatas HTGCD151
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Three Christmas Cantatas
Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998)
In Praise of Mary, for soprano, choir and orchestra (1955)
George Dyson (1883-1964)
A Christmas Garland, for soprano, choir and orchestra (1959)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
A Ceremony of Carols, Op 28 (1942)
John Ireland (1879-1962)
The Holy Boy, arr. for string orchestra (1913/1941)
Heathcote Statham (1889-1973)
The Bells of St Chad’s: Postlude for strings (1957/1980s)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/David Willcocks
Copenhagen Boys Choir/Benjamin Britten
rec. 1953/1986

This is a reissue of the Unicorn/Kanchana LP, DKP 9057 (the booklet omits this information). The disc also includes Britten’s legendary recording of his A Ceremony of Carols, when he conducted the Copenhagen Boys Choir; it was originally released on the Decca LP, LW 5070.

The liner notes explain the origin of Geoffrey Bush’s In Praise of Mary for soprano, choir and orchestra. His first thoughts for this cantata date from when he heard, as a teenager, “a broadcast of [Luigi] Dallapiccola’s Tres Laudi for soprano and chamber orchestra”. Further impetus came when he wrote incidental music for Henri Ghéon’s play The Marvellous History of St Bernard. The texts are due to his discovery of Ancient English Christmas carols 1400 to 1700 edited in 1910 by the American medievalist Edith Rickert. In Praise of Mary was originally scored for symphony orchestra. Bush latter made an updated edition for strings, organ and optional timpani, which is what we hear on this CD.

It could be argued that the cantata is not really designed for Christmas, but for Passiontide. Yet, several of these carols from the middle-ages have become Seasonal favourites: There is no Rose, A Maid Peerless, Adam lay ybounden and Lully, Lullay. Other texts include the opening Hail Mary, Full of Grace and the final Alleluia. Theologically, the work is oriented towards Our Lady as “dispenser of universal grace and goodwill”. At the climax of the piece, Bush balances the notion that Mary is Heaven’s Queen because of Adam’s fall from grace: good coming out of evil.

The work is approachable, with little to disturb the listener. It is typically tuneful and harmonically conservative. Perhaps the most dynamic part is the rhythmically persuasive setting of Adam Lay ybounden analogous to a “scherzo”. It displays “jerks” and “irregular timings” with a complex and difficult organ part. There is also an intensity in the setting of the Coventry Carol, Lully, Lullay with its heart-rending soprano solo. The serene finale, with its repeated Alleluias, leads to a huge climax and eventually resolves into perfect peace.

It would have been useful to have had the texts of George Dyson’s A Christmas Garland for mezzo soprano, choir and string orchestra. They are not featured in the invaluable LiederNet Archive. Paul Spicer’s important George Dyson: His Life and Music (The Boydell Press, 2014) gives a list of sections and text authors; it appears at the end of the review.

A Christmas Garland is presented as a single track on this recording, so it is not easy to locate the ends and beginnings of each poem/section as this lovely meditation unfolds. The liner notes give a detailed analysis of the work’s progress. The mood is typically easygoing, melodious and varied in musical effect. It certainly has George Dyson’s “usual command of vocal writing” (Spicer, op. cit.). This was Dyson’s last major composition; there would be a few organ pieces and songs before his death.

It is well known that Benjamin Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols whilst sailing back to England from America. He claimed that it was to relieve the boredom, and presumably take his mind off German torpedoes, despite having berths on a Swedish (neutral) freighter. During a stop-off in Nova Scotia, Britten purchased a copy of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, edited by Gerald Bullett, which provided him with the texts.

The Ceremony is set for treble voices accompanied by solo harp. The texts are mainly anonymous medieval carols but also poems by James, John and Robert Wedderburn, Robert Southwell and William Cornish. The premiere performance was given at Norwich Castle on 5 December 1942. Those who have heard a live performance will recall that the choir enter and leave the church/hall to Gregorian chant. In-between they sing several standalone carols including Wolcum Yole, There is no Rose, This Little Babe and As Dew in Aprille. The seventh number is a harp solo interlude.

It has often been noted that the Old English texts may give the choir some problems. The liner notes explain that in this “1953 recording made by the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir, under the composer’s direction is compromised now and then by suspect pronunciation”. For me this does not matter. The overall performance is superb, full of vivacity and youthful brio. Britten himself said that “they sang my Ceremony of Carols as I never thought it could be sung” and that their “treble sound has the sweet clarity of spring water on a sunny day bubbling with a little vibrato”.

Two charming bonus works conclude the programme. First is the straightforward arrangement for string orchestra of John Ireland’s ever popular The Holy Boy. Composed for piano in December 1913, it was published as the third of four Preludes for piano in 1918. Ireland’s arrangement dates from 1941 (not 1914 as the liner notes say).

Equally delightful is Heathcote Statham’s The Bells of St Chad’s: Postlude for strings. It began life as the final piece in Four Diversions for organ. As the notes explain, Christopher Palmer made the present transcription for string orchestra in the 1980s. It is a wonderfully vibrant piece, full of the joys of Christmas bells. It is not clear which St Chad is referred to.

I cannot be certain, but the programme notes by Christopher Palmer, Lloyd Moore and Charles Darke seem to have appeared in the original releases. It would have helped to have had the texts for all three cantatas, especially for some of the less well known poems chosen by George Dyson. The recording dates/venues are not included in the booklet or insert. I thank the record company for giving me this information for the Dyson and the Bush; a little research bottomed out the Britten. No biographical details are given about the performers.
It is not stated if these recordings have been repristinated before transfer but the sound quality is great in all cases, including the 1953 Ceremony of Carols.

I missed the George Dyson and Geoffrey Bush recordings when they were first released. It is wonderful to have them as part of my collection. It seems superfluous to say that all the performances are excellent and probably definitive.

John France
Performers and recording data
In Praise of Mary
A Christmas Garland
Valery Hill (soprano), Jane Watts (organ), Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/David Willcocks
The Holy Boy
The Bells of St Chad’s
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/David Willcocks
11-12 March 1986, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London, UK
Ceremony of Carols
Enid Simon (harp), Copenhagen Boys Choir/Benjamin Britten
20-22 September 1953, Danish Radio Concert Hall (?), Copenhagen, Denmark
Details of George Dyson’s A Christmas Garland
Yet if his majesty, our sovereign Lord (Anonymous)
Sweet music, sweeter far than any song is sweet (Anonymous)
Tell us, thou clear and heavenly tongue (Robert Herrick)
Come we shepherds whose blest sight (Richard Crashaw)
Fairer than the sun at morning, Was the star (Prudentius)
There came three kings from Galilee (Anonymous)
Wake, O earth, wake everything! (William Austin)
But see the Virgin Blest (John Milton)

Published: November 28, 2022

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